Friday, 31 July 2009

Sir Bobby Robson - Farewell

I saw the headlines on the way home - Sir Bobby Robson has died. That's sad. He's part of footballing history and was manager of both Newcastle and England, an active supporter of football and always ready to give a positive quote. When I was up in Newcastle recently I stayed in the Bobby Robson wing of the hotel.

Farewell Sir Bobby!

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

The Power of Buffy

I hesitate to say this, but Buffy Sainte-Marie is a powerful hero. Once you meet Buffy then other things fall into place.

What do I mean? No sooner do I get home from seeing Buffy at the Queen Elizabeth Hall than Chris texts me to say that Noddy Holder is on ITV on an 'archives' show where they show old films and Nod was on talking about old SLADE videos, some of which were new to me.

Then, this morning, the courier from Ticketmaster arrived with my ticket for Amanda Palmer's second show at the Union Chapel. I've *never* received an Amanda ticket first time - normally I have to book time off work to have then delivered (I've no idea why you have to sign for tickets when Madonna's are merrily sent through normal post). Not only do I get Amanda tickets, but I went to the post office at lunchtime to pick up a parcel that turned out to be Amanda's 'Who Killed Amanda Palmer' hardbacked photo book with Niel Gaiman.

Clearly I am blessed - Buffy, Noddy and Amanda in less than 24 hours...

Buffy Sainte-Marie at The Queen Elizabeth Hall

Last night Buffy Sainte-Marie played her first gig in London in 17 years to celebrate the release of her first album of new material in 17 years, 'Running For The Drum'. It was obviously going to be a special night for everyone there.

My last meeting of the day finished late and I scurried downstairs to get changed and head off to the gig shortly after 5.30pm, walking around Parliament Square and over Westminster Bridge to the Southbank. In honour of the occasion I wore my Most Beautiful Shirt In The World that's covered in rosebuds in celebration of the chorus of Buffy's 'Generation' - 'I just want to dance with the Rosebud Sioux this summer'.

With excitement mounting we took our seats for Nell Bryden who was opening the show. You know that feeling when you first take your seat and you realise the view you'll have? We were right in the middle of the second row (courtesy of Dawn Right Nasty) with the front row reserved for people in wheelchairs and their friends, so we had a perfect view of the stage, especially since the stage is low. I quite liked Nell, a good voice and some interesting songs but it was only her on guitar and a drummer (with a sadly small kit) so I suspect she sounds a lot better with her full band around her. She's playing in Camden tomorrow - if I lived there I'd probably pop along to see her but I think I might browse her music online instead. She has a great voice, versatile and powerful and probably worth watching.

After the interval we took our seats again and waited for Buffy to tread a London stage for the first time in an age. And suddenly there she was, striding out onto the stage with her band and singers (who I think were the Ulali lasses again, like in New York last year) and they went straight into 'Cho Cho Fire', one of my favourites from the new album. It's a great opening song with the line 'Ooo you better wake up, man it's like you're dead and gone...' before heading into a powerful rock pow wow stomp and we're off and running for the drum. This was followed by 'Piney Wood Hills' a total change in mood and pace and the audience loved it. In fact, we loved everything, clapping and cheering before and after songs - in part it might simply be that we so pleased to finally have Buffy on stage in front of us.

The audience response was quite interesting, with the largest cheers for the classics but clearly enjoying the new songs as well. There was also a feeling of deep respect and joy - I don't know how else to describe it. The deep silence as Buffy sang some songs that I first really noticed when Buffy went over to the Steinway grand piano to play 'Soldier Blue', just her and the piano for the opening of the song and you could feel the delight running round the room and could have heard a pin drop, followed by rapturous applause at the end. That's the first time I've heard Buffy play 'Soldier Blue' and she opened by saying her next song was from a film that was big all over the world but that closed in America in the first few days. She'd earlier played 'He's An Indian Cowboy' at the Steinway, the 'Up Where We Belong' version that finishes with pow wow - I couldn't help but sing along to that one.

I wasn't taking notes but Buffy was onstage for about 1:40 hours and sang (not in this order):

Cho Cho Fire
Piney Wood Hills
Cripple Creek
The Big Ones Get Away
No No Keshagesh
Fallen Angels
Until It's Time For You To Go
Universal Soldier
Little Wheel Spin And Spin
He's An Indian Cowboy At The Rodeo
Relocation Blues
Darling Don't Cry
Still This Love Goes On
Up Where We Belong
Soldier Blue
Working For The Government
The Priests Of The Golden Bull
Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee
Goodnight (encore)

There's something there for everyone from Buffy's 45 years (so far) career. It was a nicely paced set, with wild pow wow followed by something slower, always melodic and always thought-provoking.

And Buffy has a great stage presence, merrily chatting away to us all after the first few songs, responding to some of the shouts from the audience - we erupted in laughter at her response to a bloke in the audience shouting 'I'll hold it for you' (as her bassist was adjusting the guitar-strap) to which she replied 'So long as I don't have to reciprocate!'. Always a few words about the songs or the circumstances in which they were written - there comes a point when the clever people learn how to make music from weapons; that Joan Baez was singing 400 year old Welsh folk songs and so was Buffy, except she'd written hers two week earlier; how Bobby Darrin sent her 18 yellow roses after recording 'Until It's Time For You To Go' and then reeling off a list of people who'd recorded the song... She's been around, has Buffy, and is part of the history of music, but she's still very much now, still challenging and experimenting, still growing and teaching. And that's good for all of us.

Favourite songs were all the new ones (it's a great album) and in particular 'Still This Love Goes On' which Buffy prefaced by saying it's a song she wrote for herself, and, of course, 'No No Keshagesh' (which I tried to join in the pow wow but failed). 'Soldier Blue' was very special, 'Until It's Time For You To Go' with no sentimentality or slush, just a straight reading of a love you know won't last, 'Darling Don't Cry' and a deeply touching 'Relocation Blues' (by Floyd Westerman) with just Buffy's voice and her fingers tapping out a beat on the microphone. I also loved 'Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee' with its wild, skanking guitar riffs and the marvellous 'Starwalker'. I suppose I loved them all, really!

As she left the stage to a standing ovation Buffy cheekily quipped, 'See you in 20 years!' before vanishing. But then she came back for the encore of 'Goodnight', a lovely song in her hands and a perfect closer. Another standing ovation but no Buffy, and on came the house-lights. Phew!

I only took a few photos - I was conscious that, since I was right at the front then the flash would probably disturb others in the audience and be obvious to Buffy, and I avoided taking photos in the 'serious' or love songs. The few I have are here so enjoy them.

After the gig we queued up to meet Buffy - I was both dismayed and pleased to see how many people were before me in the queue, the queue doubling back on itself since far more people wanted to meet Buffy than expected. Why was I pleased? Because it proves that London loves Buffy - the QE Hall was sold out, that's 900-odd people despite virtually no publicity and there must have been a couple of hundred in the queue to meet her, in front and behind me.

Eventually we reach the front of the queue and step forward, copy of 'Running For Drum' ready for signing and, as she signed it, Buffy said, 'Have we met before?'. I say yes, at the Highline Ballroom in New York last year, and ask her to sign the photo of Buffy and me (which she does with the golden ink pen I bought at lunchtime) . She said, 'O yes, I thought so, what's your name?'. I say Owen. And she said. 'Yeah, I read your blog'.

Eh? What? Buffy reads *my* blog? She reads *this*?? Pride and embarrassment vie for my attention but I'm too busy standing beside Buffy with her hand in mine and Chris on her other side saying 'Cree' as her manager takes our photo (and no, I'm not publishing *that* photo). She also said she thinks she's coming back to London in January but not sure when or where, but I say I'll be there, wherever.

What a way to end the night - not only do I see Buffy in London (previously I've travelled to Belleville in Ontario and New York to see Buffy), but I meet her and she tells me she reads my blog. Gulp. Buffy may well read this review. I thought long and hard about this review before I started writing it and decided I wouldn't let that influence what I write - I know I sometimes go all fan-boy about Buffy but, let's face it, that's part of me and part of previous blogs about Buffy, so why change now?

I had a great night out, amid all the tensions about getting there on time and what would I say if I met her afterwards, but Buffy is a charming woman on-stage and off. She could charm the birds out of the trees. She certainly charmed all of us last night if the standing ovations were anything to go by. Come back soon Buffy!

Sunday, 26 July 2009

On Thin Ice

For the past few weeks I've been watching 'On Thin Ice' on the BBC (various channels) about a team of amateurs trying to win a race to the South Pole in January 2009. The team comprised of James Cracknell and Ben Fogell with an unknown Dr Ed - all three of them posh lads, with James a two times Olympic gold medal winner and Ben a telly presenter with Ed being, well, a doctor. Too many posh accents and ginger/blond beards for comfort. A few years ago James and Ben rowed across the Atlantic so they're used to hardship.

Despite all that I've found the series fascinating, the training and traumas they face in getting ready for the race and then the race itself. James as the Olympic gold medal winner pushing the other two but then his body giving out first, with blisters and frostbite, pneumonia and a ginger beard. Then Ben getting frostbite on his nose and Ed having problems with his feet...

We see them pushing themselves to exhasution, to the limit and beyond. I'm not sure if this was bravery or stupidity, with them racing against experienced snow and ice athletes but, against all chances they actually came in second to the Norwegians (just like in the original race to the Pole 100 years ago). That's pretty impressive. Tonight's was the final episode but it didn't tell us whether James lost his finger or Ben the tip of his nose to frostbite but I assume they didn't.

It was adventure at the hard end and, in a sense, it's nice to know that such challenges still exist in a world growing smaller every day. Well done chaps!

Friday, 24 July 2009

Four Days To Buffy

In four days time (to the minute) I'll be seeing Buffy Sainte-Marie play her first London gig in forever. Today is the start of the countdown, with me having a Buffy day listening to Buffy on my iPod travelling to and from work. When I got home and checked my emails I found an email from Michael on the Buffy Yahoo group alerting everyone that some new sound files had been uploaded, eight songs broadcast by the BBC of a London concert back in 1992 to launch 'Coincidence & Likely Stories'. Obviously I downloaded them in a trice and now have a 'Buffy - Live In London' album.

What's more, Buffy was interviewed on BBC Radio 4 this evening on the Front Row show. Hear Buffy talk about signing away her rights to 'Universal Soldier' for $1, Elvis wanting a share of the rights to 'Until It's Time For You To Go', how she wrote the music to 'Up Where We Belong' and got an Oscar, being blacklisted in the USA and magic markers in her FBI file... She sounds on top form!

The interview is available on the BBC iPlayer for, I think, seven days, so click to listen to Buffy while you can. Scroll in to about 1:10 for the start of the interview.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Rachel Unthank & The Winterset at The Linbury Studio

Tonight I had the distinct pleasure of seeing Rachel Unthank & The Winterset at the Linbury Studio at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, as part of the 'Voices Across The World' series of concerts. It's an odd space but I had a perfect view of Rachel and the lasses on stage so I was happy.

I came across Rachel last year and got 'The Bairns' which I listened to a couple of times, thinking it was a nice album. I listened to it again before Christmas and discovered it's greatness, particularly the sentiment-laden 'Fareweel Regality'. The band is currently Rachel and Becky Unthank, Stef Conner (piano) and Niopha Keegan- (fiddle, accordion) and all sing and play various instruments. It's a pleasure to see them count The Dresden Dolls as an infulence on their MySpace site (where you can also hear some songs). I'd love to hear them re-interpret an Amanda Palmer song.

They opened with Robert Wyatt's 'Sea Song', setting the tone for the rest of the evening with simple arrangements and gorgeous harmonies, the Unthank sisters singing in accent and dialect, reflecting their Northumbrian roots. As well as tracks from their two albums ('Cruel Sister' and 'The Bairns') they sang some non-album songs and one song from the new album, due in September. It was a nicely paced set, with melancholy songs leading into some more energetic songs and even the semi-comic leanings of 'On A Monday Morning' with Rachel regretting the excesses of the weekend. We were also treated to some clog-dancing by the multi-talented Unthank sisters.

Favourite songs were 'Blackbird' with it's chirpy piano riffs conjouring up the image of a blackbird hopping round, singing it's cheeky song and 'Felton Lonnin' with it's tale of woe and Becky providing percussion by tapping her feet. I was delighted when the lasses came back on for an encore and sang 'Fareweel Regality' about leaving old Hexhamshire, change and growth, and that always touches me - I've been to Hexham many times over the years and can't see that I'll ever return, so it's farewell from me...

I'm particularly pleased to have seen them tonight since it's one of their last ever gigs. They've got a few more gigs in the next weeks but the band will then dissolve and re-form as The Unthanks with Rachel, Becky and Niopha with a bigger band around them, with percussion, brass and more strings. The new album is out in September and then there's a big tour of the UK over the autumn. They presented Stef with a huge boquet since she's returning to university to finish off her PhD and it was touching to see her wiping away tears.

The Unthank lasses had a nice line in talking to the audience and I can quite imagine them sitting in a little Northumbrian pub, chatting away over a pint and being the life and soul of the lounge, Becky telling us about the terrapins her boyfriend bought her for her last birthday.

I'm looking forward to the new album and I think I'll be seeing them in October at Shepherd's Bush. I thoroughly enjoyed the gig tonight and more would be good.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

'Calendar Girls' at The Noel Coward Theatre

We went to see 'Calendar Girls' tonight, the play of the film of the calendar. One of the attractions for me was seeing Brigit Forsyth for the first time on stage - for me, Brigit will forever be Thelma from 'The Likely Lads' in the '70s, the social climbing wife and that's sort of her role in the play, as the leader of the local Women's Institute desperate to mingle with the gentry. Brigit 'putting on a posh voice' has served her well for decades and long may it do so! It must've been great seeing her play that part in Newcastle when the production toured.

Anyway, on my way to the theatre I stopped off in Trafalgar Square to see what was happening on the Fourth Plinth to be greeted by a woman with big placards saying things like 'Anthony Nolan says: Celebrate' and a group of people in the square doing as told. It was a promotion for the Anthony Nolan Trust and the people in the Square were either recipients or donors of bone marrow, since the Trust focuses on leukemia. That's a fun way of promoting a charity. I didn't realise it at the time but the reason for the 'girls' doing the calendar in the first place was that the husband of one of the WI members died of leukemia.

The play opens at a Women's Institute meeting in a made-up small town in the Yorkshire Dales with a group of good friends chatting and bored with the standard WI fare of speakers and cake-baking competitions. When the husband of the group dies of leukemia they decide to raise funding to buy a new sofa for the hospital waiting room, and they'll do this by being photographed naked for a calendar with standard WI fare strategically placed to avoid embarrassment.

The play tells the tale of how the calendar happened and what happened next, personal stories played out in public. It took us straight to the heart of Sentiment Central but, you know what? I didn't mind at all. It worked for me, the joy and sadness, the personal journeys and risks of the participants, the struggle against authority in the shape of Brigit (who, sadly, didn't get her kit off) and discovering the true nature of friendship. I laughed and cried along with them and loved every minute of it.

The cast were excellent. Sian Phillips was great as the retired school teacher and got some of the best laughs but I will always think of her as Livia from 'I Clavdivs'. Elaine C Smith and Gaynor Faye were a fab double act, rude and demure by turns and, of course, Brigit Forsyth had some great lines - I particularly liked her badminton scene with her exaggerated racket stroke that won every match (sort of). She's got great comic timing and knows when to pull her punch.

The main stars were, of course, Lynda Bellingham and Patricia Hodge who have developed a good on-stage presence as friends of 27 years standing. They are very believable and feed off each other nicely, Lynda being more blunt and out-spoken, with Patricia being a bit more thoughtful. Lynda is the first to take her top off (although you don't see anything naughty) and the first act closes with them all doing their photo-shoot.

The cast changes next week so it'll be interesting to hear how the new line-up works. A re-fresh helps most things, but I'm pleased I've seen this cast. Well done, girls!

Monday, 20 July 2009

Marianne Faithfull at The Royal Festival Hall

Marianne Faithfull stopped off at the Royal Festival Hall tonight on her tour to promote her latest album, 'Easy Come Easy Go'. The ticket said 7.30pm start and, for once, the show actually did start at the time on the ticket (well, 7.35pm).

The general assumption is that doors open, there'll be a support act and then the main act at 8.30pm or 9.00pm. Not Marianne, she walked on stage at 7.35pm so I'm pleased I'd asked about timing earlier on at the ticket office - the number of empty seats around us showed that many people hadn't checked and the seats filled up during the first half hour of the gig. We were in the seventh row, right in the middle and had a perfect view of Marianne, I actually felt a bit exposed with vacant seats in front of me since I was right in her line of vision... then people arrived and modesty was restored.

The opening song was 'Times Square', always a powerful statement and a joy to hear. The sound balance didn't seem quite right, with Marianne's vocals a bit drowned during the first few songs but that was soon corrected. She also gained in confidence and started chatting to the audience more after a few songs, even refreshing her lipstick at one point, using us as her mirror.

She mixed songs from her very long career with tracks from her new album. Two of the new songs worked particularly well, I thought, in the august company of many of her classics, and these were 'Down From Dover' and 'Hold On Hold On', both fit right in with the rest of the set. Her seven-piece band were excellent, especially the lead guitarist who was able to go wild in a few of the songs.

Favourite songs were, as you'd expect, her classics, particulary the trio from 'Broken English' (30 years old this year) - 'Broken English', 'Ballad Of Lucy Jordan' and 'Why D'ya Do It' (that closed the gig). I got the album on musi-cassette back in the day and the songs still stand up today - Marianne, clearly enjoying the massive sound of 'Broken English' commented that the song was always relevant since there is, sadly, always another war to sing about. I've always liked 'Lucy Jordan' (including Dr Hook's original) and 'Why D'ya Do It' is outstanding. I find it odd that adults - and let's face it, a Marianne audience is definitely on the mature side of the spectrum - still feel the need to snigger when she swears in that song.

She did a great version of 'Sister Morphine', painful at the best of times and a delightful 'As Tears Go By'. I wonder how many people in the audience weren't born when she first sang that song? I'd add as favourites, 'Dover' and 'Hold On' from the new album, both of which worked excellently along side the other songs. She finished with 'Don't Forget Me' with just her and the piano as the second encore, before finally leaving the stage. Two encores but three standing ovations for Marianne - it looked to me like she shed a tear along with her smiles at the first standing ovation (yes, we were that close).

I've been lucky enough to see Marianne a few times in the last seven years - I first saw her seven years ago at the now-defunct Astoria - in different venues that called for different shows. I've not been disappointed yet. If you get the chance, go and see her on the current tour. Marianne is part of music history but isn't a nostalgia trip - she's still producing great music today.

Oh, and no photos of the gig I'm afraid - Marianne asked for no photos and (for once) I obeyed.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

'A Doll's House' at The Donmar Warehouse

Last night we went to see 'A Doll's House' at the Donmar Warehouse for what I later realised was it's last performance. It's a new version of Ibsen's classic by Zinnie Harris that updates it to Edwardian London and a political scenario. It featured Gillian Anderson in the lead role as Nora and Christopher Ecclestone as the politician on the way down as Nora's husband's star is ascending. Having two telly stars (X-Files and Dr Who) in the cast sort of dictates who's in the audience to a degree and last night there seemed to be an awful lot of young girls in the audience.

The play circles around how the face we present in public isn't necessarily what we're really like and the consequent fear of public exposure, particularly of past indiscretions, and the impact on personal and family lives. Nora's politician husband had a nervous breakdown and, to save him and his career, she took out a loan without him knowing to take him away to Italy for his recovery. Eight years later and the final payment of the loan is due within days when the man she loaned the money from, another politician, has been revealed as committing fraud, removed from the Cabinet and Nora's husband has been given his old job and government house to live in. The stage is set for intrigue, blackmail, soul searching and disaster, all this and its Christmas Eve too.

Gillian Anderson was excellent in the lead role of Nora and is on stage for the majority of the play. She had a nice mix of girlishness and coquettishness, a demure Edwardian lady who is aware of her sexual power over her husband and other men. She was cool, calm and dramatic by turn. Her journey of a loving, caring, if rather inconsequential, wife willing to take risks on behalf of her husband to becoming a more clear-sighted and more mature woman is believable in context although it's not an uplifting ending. No-one 'wins' in the end other than the minor characters who decide to go with their hearts and fade into the background and out of public life.

Christopher Eccleston was a bit disappointing - he acted the same role he always seems to play, a bit manic, a bit angry, a bit desperate - I vaguely recall him playing it like that in 'Our Friends In The North' as well as in 'Dr Who'. That might've been what his role in the play called for, but it felt a bit like acting by numbers. The other main character, Nora's husband played by Toby Stephens was a bit irritating, the way he shuffled his feet and couldn't stand still, almost sounding like he was tap-dancing. His flares of aggressive anger (obviously meant to remind us of his nervous breakdown eight years earlier) weren't particularly convincing either. As soon as he started talking and gesturing in the first act I couldn't help but think 'Blair'.

I enjoyed the play and the production. The set was very simple, a drawing room full of empty shelving, packing cases and trunks since the family had only just moved into the house. And, because it was Christmas Eve, an enormous Christmas tree. Unfortunately, the tree wasn't well dressed at all - my services are available to help with the tree for the next production of this play for a reasonable fee.

At the end, the front of the Donmar was mobbed and we had to go out of a side exit. I assume everyone was waiting for a final chance for autographs and photos with the stars. I wonder if it's been like every night of the play's run?

Friday, 17 July 2009

Farrah Fawcett

Everyone over a certain age knows Farrah Fawcett. Back in the '70s she had the best hair ever, any girl who claimed to be female had a 'Farrah flick', and she had the biggest and best smile ever. She invented the American smile. She was also an original Charlie's Angel. Some things matter, and Farrah matters.

She died the same day/night that Michael Jackson died so all the media and publicity jumped on his bandwagon. To a degree, I'm pleased that happened - Farrah died with her dignity intact and didn't suffer the meedja circus of Michael.

The documentary of Farrah's last two years was shown tonight - I think it was shown just a few weeks before she died in America. It chronicles her fight against cancer over the last couple of years, her trips to hospital, her private moments, the lot, all filmed by her friend to be a public record. One of the key moments was showing a young Farrah in her 20s doing a commercial for cancer charities and then showing Farrah last year going through her cancer treatment.

A shocking moment was, late in the film, when we saw an almost bald Farrah, having lost most of her hair from the drugs. For someone who's been identified for over 30 years by their magnificent hair it was quite touching to see Farrah show herself without a hat or wig. Shortly before that scene we'd been shown Farrah and her personal hairdresser and friend combing her hair and clumps coming out, then singing and dancing to Michelle Shocked's 'When I Grow Up'. It was also nice to see her fellow 'Angels' who were still friends and still part of her extended family.

The documentary closed with Farrah's son, who'd been released from prison for 3 hours to see her, lying on the bed beside her talking to his mother. Ryan O'Neil did part of the narrating, assuring her son that she recognised him and knew who he was, being a good father.

It was all very touching. Farrah Fawcett was one of the golden people and, in a way, I'm pleased that her death was 'hidden' by Michael Jackson dying - at least she has her dignity. I hated the scenes in the film of the papperazzi taking photos of her going into and leaving hosipital - that was awful. How can people do that? Cancer saps enough of your strength and will without having to fight publicity hungry scum.

Everyone fell in love with Farrah in the '70s and through her subsequent work. I'll always remember the blond hair, big smile and beautiful woman. That can only be enhanced by her bravery during her cancer treatment, being filmed in the most unflattering ways but ways that help us understand the personal disaster of cancer. Let's hope her film improves cancer research and treatment. She was a beautiful and brave woman.

Thank You, Mam

Many years ago, possibly back in the late '80s/early '90s, my Mam started buying premium bonds occasionally for me and my brothers, not huge sums, £5 here and there. I'd totally forgotten about the premium bonds, haven't given them a thought for years and have no idea where the paperwork is, but they're still sitting there, somewhere in Ernie...

I got home after work today, picked up my post and opened two envelopes. One held tickets to see Alan Cumming's show (at The Vaudeville, scene of Wednesday's getting lost fiasco!) and the other held a cheque. For £25. I looked on in puzzlement, turned it one way and another, read it, read the leaflet that came with it and then, slowly, it dawned on me. For the first time ever, one of my bond numbers has come up and I've won £25. A present out of the blue.

I have, of course, no intention of spending it wisely. I will get a nice bottle of wine, or maybe Cava, and raise a glass to my benefactress. I think she'd approve. Thank you, Mam.

Thursday, 16 July 2009

'Duet For One' at The Vaudeville Theatre

Last night we went to see 'Duet For One' with Juliet Stevenson and Henry Goodman at The Vaudeville Theatre. The night started off badly with me wandering round the West End in the pouring rain wondering where the theatre was... yes, I was lost in London again! For some reason I was convinced the theatre was on Shaftesbury Avenue but it is, of course, on The Strand - I know that, I've been there before, but the brain cells weren't joined up...

The Vaudeville is a nice small theatre and nowhere is very far from the stage so it's a nice, intimate affair. I liked the set with walls of shelves full of CDs and books, big windows, a nice atmosphere. Naturally, of course, since it's a pyschoanalyst's consulting room. And, of course, he was German with a rather odd accent. The scene is set for Juliet Stevenson to enter in a motorised wheelchair and the play begins.

The play is a based around the two characters and their therapy sessions. Juliet was a famous violinst who develops MS and can no longer play. Her husband (who we never see) convinces her to see a therapist and the play reveals six of their therapy sessions. From a smart, confident woman in a wheelchair, she descends into a scruffy slag fucking the local rag and bone man (the women sitting behind me couldn't help giggling whenever Juliet said 'fuck'). Despair, abuse, rage and, on occasion, euphoria, it's all there. It was an impressive performance by Juliet, who I've never seen on stage before.

Henry Goodman played the doctor and he didn't really have much to say (in his odd German accent) other than one long, really long, monologue in the second act that made my attention start to drift. He was ok but why did he have to be German? What did that add to the plot? He had some nice comic moments to lighten the tension.

As ever, Chris knows the play and pointed out that it was written for Frances de La Tour and I can quite understand that - some of those witty, barbed comments should be copyright for her. Despite being quite a bleak play there were a lot of witty comments that raise a grin, if not a laugh. It was rather static in that Juliet was mainly in her wheelchair and the doctor was mainly in his oddly shaped chair. There wasn't a lot of energy but there was an awful lot of tension.

I enjoyed the play and the performances - my attention wandered a couple of times, but it's a thought-provoking play. How would I respond if I had multiple sclerosis? I don't know. After her fine performance, I'd like to see Juliet in something where she can be a bit more mobile and demonstrative - I thought she was excellent.

Monday, 13 July 2009

Maximo Park - 'Questing, Not Coasting'

Here's the new Maximo Park single, 'Questing, Not Coasting'. The EP version includes two new songs as well as a demo version of 'In Another World' so go and buy it now.

Sunday, 12 July 2009

Plinth Watch Sunday

Well, since I was heading into town anyway to see 'Hamlet' (see below) I thought I'd pay a visit to my current favourite artwork in London, the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square.

I arrived just as Ms 1pm changed to Mr 2pm and off went the 3 feet blue penguin and on came the man with a deck chair reading the 'paper in his garden. Mr 2pm brought on four big pot plants to put at the corners of the plinth and then built his deck chair, got out his Sunday newspaper and sat back to enjoy a good read. I liked Mr 2pm, that's a nice idea.

Trafalgar Square was really busy this afternoon - I've no idea whether it's always that busy or whether the Plinth project has brought people out, but it was a lovely sunny afternoon so I took photos anyway.

After 'Hamlet' and after a meal we went back to check out the Plinth and found Ms 7pm who seemed to be an actress of some sort doing a one-woman play from the Plinth. Good for her.

'Hamlet' at Wyndham's Theatre

This afternoon Chris took me to see 'Hamlet' at Wyndham's Theatre, the fourth and final production in the Donmar Warehouse season. Each play in the season had a big name fronting it, firstly, 'Ivanov' with Kevin Brannagh, then 'Twelfth Night' with Derek Jacobi and 'Madame De Sade' with Judi Dench, and finally 'Hamlet' with Jude Law. I've enjoyed each of the plays in different ways and found them frustrating as well. This afternoon's play was no different in that respect.

I saw 'Hamlet' 31 years ago with Derek Jacobi in the lead role. It's definitely a 'leading man' play and is a milestone in anyone's career, which is possibly why Jude Law has taken the title role for this production. I must admit to not really knowing who he is beyond being British and having been in Hollywood films but I had to ask Chris which films he'd been in and decided he's in films I don't see. A lot of the audience clearly knew who he was and were probably only there because of him. I studied 'Hamlet' in depth at university so am very familiar with it as a text but have only seen it once on stage, so I'd been looking forward to this afternoon's performance.

As with all the Donmar productions, I loved the staging and sets, minimal but expressive, and the usual excellent and atmospheric lighting and subtle ambient music. The costumes were all a bit dull and grey but at least Gertrude and Ophelia had a change of colour. Jude Law was, of course, Hamlet, with Penelope Wilton as Gertrude and Kevin R McNally as Claudius, both of whom were excellent. Gertrude doesn't have a big role so this must be a bit of downtime for Penelope who I've seen in a few far more demanding plays in recent years - at least she got to roll around on the floor with Jude, something I'm sure lots of the audience envied her for. And something I thought didn't work at all.

Jude was good as Hamlet, declaiming and phrasing nicely, but I wasn't sure why he had to shout so much, run around and be out of breath (falsely) so often - how much of that was Jude and how much was the director I'll never know, but I found it irritating by the second half - you don't have to run on stage every single time. Kevin R McNally was excellent as Claudius, controlling and totally believable but I did want to hear him say 'ooo arrrr!' in 'Pirates of the Carribean' stylee just once. I was to be disappointed.

I was also disappointed by Ophelia who just seemed a bit, well, wimpish really. Ophelia is, like Gertrude, a rather unsatisfying role since the play is so dominated by men, but, on the other hand, allows so much scope for different characterisations of the role. Unfortunately, we got wimp. O well.

The best scene was the final one - and not because it was the end of the play. The performances were excellent as the main characters died one by one and I admit to my eyes getting a bit moist at that stage. Death and mayhem rule 'Hamlet', nowhere more so than the closing of the play and this was excellently done. The cast deserved its applause at the end although I suspect much of it was for Jude from his fan-base. I enjoyed it and think it would be interesting to see Jude in something less classic - I've no doubt I'll see Penelope in something else in the next year but I still want to hear an 'ooo arrr' from Kevin...

Saturday, 11 July 2009

Plinth Watch

Every now and then I've been sneaking a peek at the live webcam broadcasting the One & Other artwork on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square, seeing who's on and what they're doing. Most are rather unexciting, just sitting there or standing waving at people. On Thursday afternoon someone called Amanda build her own sculpture of a man out of bread rolls (I think) which was quite fun.

On Thursday afternoon I went up to Trafalgar Square since I was going to see Grace Jones at the other end of the Strand later that evening. When I got there the woman on the plinth was just sitting licking a lolly. O. That was it. Then she stood up and blew some bubbles. Then she sat down again. It was re-assuring to see that there were security people milling in the crowds to make sure nothing untoward happened and no-one tried to climb onto the Plinth from below. The most exciting thing was that a young woman came up to interview me for local radio about what I thought of the goings on in the Square - I said I liked it and it was a good way of bringing more people to the Square.

I wanted to see the big change-over when the small crane appears to lift one person into the plinth and remove the previous person - who will the replacement be and will he/she be more exciting as an art installation? Um, the 7pm bloke had messages written on A2 sheets of paper that were difficult to hold up properly in the breeze - if you're going to have written materials they should really be on stiff cardboard.

Change-over over, we went up the side of the National Gallery (anyone know why the front is all boarded up?) to Val Taro for food and then back shortly after 8pm and there was a woman in lifeboat wetsuit promoting the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. If I get selected for an hour on the Plinth I have no idea what I'd do... easy to be critical of other people but would I be any better as Art?

Anyway, here are some photos I took in rough chronological order, 6pm leading to 8pm...

Friday, 10 July 2009

Grace Jones at Somerset House

Last night we went to see Grace Jones in the courtyard of the elegant Somerset House - my second open air gig in two weeks and the skies were kind to us, with no rain at all. I saw Grace back in January at the Roundhouse on her 'Hurricane' tour and this was, as far as I recall, the same show, just 6 months more rehearsed. She was, of course, fabulous but, sadly, didn't announce to the world that she was an alien and didn't hit her dresser at all (despite his/her inability to find the hole... the hole of what? I dread to ask...).

She opened with 'Nightclubbing' standing on her riser at the back of the stage, a mere 25 minutes after the advertised start time, and then proceeded to wow us all with her classic songs from the '80s and the great songs from her latest album, 'Hurricane'. Inbetween each song she left the stage for a few moments, still talking into the microphone while she was re-styled for the next song, remaining in her black swimsuit/basque throughout. Add a sparkly hat and here's a new Grace.

The highlights for me were probably the same as last time, with 'Pull Up To The Bumper', 'La Vie En Rose', a hard and dangerous 'Demolition Man', 'Slave To The Rhythm' during which she kept her hula-hoop moving round her waist the whole time and 'Devil In My Life' during which she wore devil horns and pulled dramatic shapes. The closers were the almost punkified 'Love Is The Drug' and 'Hurricane' with the big wind machine sending Grace staggering around the stage, song-sheets flying and her cloak billowing out behind her as she collapses to the floor. A special mention to her new classic, 'Williams Blood' (which she dedicated to Michael Jackson since he was surrounded by religious people too), hard and driving rhythms and crashing guitars and, at the highlight in the chorus the lights on stage and those shining into the audience all came alive for a magnificently dramatic moment while Grace, the backing singers, guitar and drums all crashed and clashed as one. I hope someone filmed it.

After the end of the show and the audience leaving, on came Grace again to say 'thank you' to everyone she could think of, saying she was high from the show, and proceeded to thank everyone involved in the show. Then she vanished again to mass applause. If you get the chance to see Grace Jones play live, grab it with both hands!

Somerset House is a great backdrop to a gig but suffers from the usual problems of poor sight-lines, what with every tall person in London being present last night, and aggravated a bit by the cobble-stones underfoot that didn't make for comfortable standing. The courtyard is surrounded by columns that were lit in dramatics greens, reds and purples to complement the stage show. It was well organised though, with managed queues for the beer tents so it gets the thumbs up for that.

Wednesday, 8 July 2009

The Fourth Plinth

Have you heard about the Fourth Plinth?

Anthony Gormley is asking people to become living statues and occupy the empty Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. Everyone involved gets one hour on the plinth and you can do whatever you like. It started on Monday and I saw some of the activities when I went past it on the bus the other day. I'm tempted, I really am, but I'd worry about falling off (heights and me don't mix). You get lifted on by a crane and the change over is on the hour.

Click for the live webcam to get different views of what's happening on the plinth 24 hours a day. At the moment an Australian woman is throwing paper planes into the crowds from her place on the plinth. I will have to go along and investigate more closely.

In the mean time, if you fancy being art for an hour ...

... oh, the Australian lady has just been replaced by a bloke who's just standing there, quite still... wonder if he'll move at all? This could become quite addictive.

UPDATE: I've applied for a place on the plinth - if I'm selected it'll be in September ... Watch this space!

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Garden And Cosmos

I went to see the 'Garden And Cosmos' exhibition at the British Museum yesterday. Subtitled, 'The Royal Paintings Of Jodhpur', the exhibition contains 56 paintings from the 17-19th centuries on loan from the royal collection in the Mehrangarh Museum in Jodhpur. I have three small paintings from India in Mughal style that I got when I visited Delhi many years ago so I knew what to expect but these royal paintings were much bigger, full of detail and incredibly colourful (I've no idea how they mixed paints to retain their colour after all this time).

The paintings are arranged in order of the various kings of Jodhpur who commissioned the works, so they reflect their interests. Maharaja Bakhat Singh liked to be painted in his gardens or in his palaces surrounded by his women whereas Vijai Singh seems to have preferred religious painting, with scenes of Krishna frolicking with gopi girls or scenes from The Ramayana. Generally, the paintings are quite literal so you can 'read' the scene in front of you, drinking in the details and piecing it together.

One of my favourites is 'Death of Vali: Rama and Lakshmana Wait Out The Monsoon' (which is the painting on all the posters for the exhibition) with its magnificent monsoon clouds and elephants trumpeting with joy, welcoming the rain. In the middle of the painting are Rama and his brother sheltering from the monsoon in a mountain while, to the left, are other scenes from the Ramayana in which Rama kills Vali the usurper and we then see him cremated while his wife watches.It's a glorious painting and this photo here doesn't do it justice, losing the vibrancy of the colours.

Other paintings demonstrate yogic thinking with depictions of the chakras in 'body maps' and some, more minimal, paintings that depict Hindu philosophical concepts. One painting made up of three panels had a field of gold leaf in one panel, representing the Absolute, nothingness, then a figure appears in the next panel surrounded by the gold as a supreme being imagines himself into existence and in the next panel he sits on silver rocks as he imagines the world into existence (or at least that's how I see it). A meditation piece perhaps. Elsewhere there was the inscription: "Once upon a time I was formless and eternal, and I wished to create the world" attributed to the Nath Purana.

I enjoyed the exhibition, getting drunk on the gorgeous colours and shapes, reading the tales in the paintings and wondering how much I failed to see. If you get the chance, go and see it.

Outside the Museum, in the courtyard, is a complementary organic exhibition from Kew Gardens that shows off some of the plants and trees found in the paintings. I liked all the marigolds.